The Bride Stripped Bare
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Summary

A woman disappears, leaving behind an incendiary diary chronicling a journey of sexual awakening. To all who knew her, she was the good wife: happy, devoted, content. But the diary reveals a secret self, one who's discovered that her new marriage contains mysteries of its own. She has discovered a forgotten Elizabethan manuscript that dares to speak of what women truly desire, and inspired by its revelations, she tastes for the first time the intoxicating power of knowing what she wants and how to get it. The question is: How long can she sustain a perilous double life?

Topics: First in a Series, Trilogy, Erotic, Sex, Adultery, Marriage, Sexuality, England, London, Epistolary Novels, Secret Life, Love, Dark, Suspenseful, and Australian Author

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062191472
List price: $9.99
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The Bride Stripped Bare - Nikki Gemmell

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time.

1

I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there’s somebody nobody knows about.

—ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THORNTON WILDER,

Shadow of a Doubt

Lesson 1

honesty is of the utmost importance

Your husband doesn’t know you’re writing this. It’s quite easy to write it under his nose. Just as easy, perhaps, as sleeping with other people. But no one will ever know who you are, or what you’ve done, for you’ve always been seen as the good wife.

Lesson 2

cold water stimulates, strengthens and braces the nerves

A honeymoon. A foreign land.

There you are, succumbing to the sexual ritual and remembering the day as a seven-year-old when you discovered water. You’d never been in a swimming pool before; there were none where you were growing up. You’re remembering a summer holiday and a swimming pool with the water inching up your belly as you stepped forward gingerly and the slow creep of the cold and the breath collected in the knot of your stomach and your mother always there ahead of you, smiling and coaxing and holding out her hands and stepping back and back. Then suddenly, pop, you’re floating and the water’s holding your belly and legs like sinews of rope, it’s muscular and balming and silky and the memory’s as potent as a first kiss.

As for the first time you fucked, well, you remember the sound, as his fingers readied you between your legs, not much else. Not even a name now.

Lesson 3

making a comfortable bed is a very important part of household work

In the night air of Marrakech, on your belated honeymoon, the first scrum of morning birds sounds like fat spitting and crackling in a kitchen. It’s still dark but the birds have taken over from the frogs as crisply as if a conductor’s lowered his baton. The call to prayer has pulled you awake and you can’t fall back into sleep, you want to fling the french doors wide, as wide as they’ll go, and inhale the strange desert dawn. But your husband, Cole, will wake and complain if you do.

So. You lay your hand on the jut of his hip and breathe in his sleeping, the sour, sweet smell of it, and smile softly in the dark. The tip of your nose nuzzles his scent on the back of his neck.

You’ve never loved anyone more in your life.

You slip on to the balcony. It’s hot, 82 degrees at least. A wondrous child-smile greets a great spill of stars, for the vast orange glow from London’s lights means you never see stars at home, scarcely know when there’s a full moon. The night flowers exhale their bloom, bougainvillaea and hibiscus and magnolia are still and shadowy in the night. You feel fat with content. Cole calls out, plaintive, and you slip back inside and his arm wings your body and clamps you tight.

Your feet maneuver free of the sheet’s smother and dangle off the edge of the bed, as they always do, finding the coolness and the air.

Lesson 4

very few people have many friends; as the word is generally used, it has no meaning at all

On the day before you leave for Marrakech Mrs. Theodora White tells you she has no passion in her life, for anything. It’s such a shock to hear, but she dismisses your concern with a smile and a flick of her hand. She picks a sliver of tobacco off her tongue and throws back her head to gulp the last of her flat white wine. She was born thirty-five whereas you haven’t gained definition yet, haven’t hardened into adulthood. You’re also in your thirties but still stamp through puddles and sing off-key too much, as if tucked inside you is a little girl who refuses to die.

The only thing I’ve ever had a passion for was Jesus, Theo tells you. When I was eleven. It was something to do with the hips.

She was expelled from your convent school because the Mother Superior decided she had more influence over the students than the nuns did. She has many stories like this. You do not. She’s called Diz by the people closest to her. She’s always rolling her cigarettes from a battered silver case and this only adds to her charm, as does her air of being constantly in heat. Your friend is lush, ripe, her body a peachy size fourteen. She’s one of those women who look like they enjoy an abundance of everything, food, fresh air, sex, laughter, love. When alongside Theo you feel pale, like a leaf left too long in the water, bleached of color and life.

But you don’t envy her for you know too much about her. She’s your oldest friend in the world, you’ve loved her since you were thirteen. You’re not sure why it’s so disturbing to hear she has no passion in her; perhaps it’s because your life, in contrast, on the cusp of your honeymoon, seems bathed in love. As you walk home from the café you smile out loud at that thought, you can’t help it, you smile widely as you walk down the street.

Lesson 5

it is absolutely necessary to wash the

armpits and hips every day

You’ve laughed with Theo that your husband always sleeps with his T-shirt and boxer shorts on, even when it’s hot. That he doesn’t appreciate the sweetness of skin to skin, the softness of it and the smell, the warmth. Just the sight of a man’s chest can make you wet. You’d never say an expression like that to him, makes me wet. You would to Theo. Cole would be horrified at how much she knows.

You love placing your palm on Cole’s chest when you’re lying in bed, curving your torso around the crescent of his back, the jigsaw fit of it. You love the smell of him when he hasn’t washed, especially the softness under his arms. If he knew, he’d describe it as unseemly. Sometimes in bed Cole doesn’t allow your hand to stay on his chest, he brusques it away. Sometimes he lets your hand rest there. Sometimes he clamps your hand like it’s caught in a trap and when you drag it away he clutches it tight and it becomes a game to disentangle yourself.

But only you’re giggling, in the close dark.

Lesson 6

girls can never be too thoughtful

Why are you putting on your socks, you ask.

Because I’m going back to the room, Lovely.

But we’ve just got here, Donkey. Your swimmers are still wet.

I know, but there’s a very important meeting in front of the telly. Are you coming?

No, I’ll stay a bit longer.

You feel guilty saying no for Cole needs you a lot and he’s loud with his want, it’s almost a petulance, like a boy’s. But you can feel your skin absorbing this hard Moroccan light like the desert does rain, can feel it uncurling something within you. Here the light bashes you; in England, it licks you. Cole’s skin and eyes recoil from it; his skin is very pale, almost translucent; he’s away, inside, a lot. Not only on holidays but in London too. He sequesters himself by habit. At work, until late, or in front of the television, or in the bathroom. He can stay on the toilet for three-quarters of an hour or more, if you sit next to him on the couch he’ll make his way to the armchair without even realizing what he’s doing, if you put your hand on his groin in bed he’ll shrug it away. He sleeps with the curve of his back to you more often than not.

Yet even when he’s away he needs you nearby: he’s told you that you’re his life. You love the ferocity in his need, to be wanted so much. Cole is the only man you’re attracted to whom you can talk to without a fear of silence, like an empty highway, right through the middle of the conversation. Or of saying something ridiculous and telling, or of your lip trembling, or of blushing. Your body stays obedient around Cole, you’re in control, you can relax. It’s one of the reasons why you married him. That you’re comfortable with him, that you don’t have to act too much, you can be, almost, yourself. No one else is allowed so close.

Lesson 7

dance away with all your might

Your big toe’s kissed, indulgently, when you throw back your arms like a diva on the sunlounger and declare you’ll be staying by the pool a little longer. Neither Cole nor yourself has seen anything, yet, of the new city you’re in, even though you’ve been here for four days. Theo would berate you for this but marriage has made you soft, dulled your curiosity. The crush of robed and veiled people at the airport, the mountains of luggage and squealing children and machine-guns on guards were all a little overwhelming, so both Cole and yourself are content to stay wrapped within the hotel for a while. It’s like the one in the movie The Shining, with wide, deco corridors and a surreally spare lobby and the regret of some long-ago lost decadence. A bastion of French colonialism that’s now frequented by wealthy Europeans, but there are not enough of them to plump out its space. There are no Muslims. Perhaps they find it too ridiculous, or unwelcoming, or odd, but there’s no one to ask.

You would’ve sought the answers once, you shone with curiosity once. Now you’re almost too languid to care, for you’re distracted, deliciously so. You sit on the edge of the pool and dawdle your fingertips in its coolness and remember something from the day-old Times, that the urge to think rarely strikes the contented. You smile—so what?—and wave over a pool waiter for another Bellini. How you love them. You’ve never allowed yourself the luxury of laziness, or four Bellinis in a row before.

A donkey pulls a cart of clippings up a rose-bowered path of the hotel’s gardens. A man flicks a whip lazily over the animal’s back. It’s something of this land at least. You must photograph it.

Lesson 8

it is a wife’s duty to make her husband’s home happy

Midnight is thick with heat and humming with stillness before the assault of the frogs and the birds and your eyes are shut but you can sense Cole’s gaze, can feel his greed and there’s a tightness in your throat. Your relationship works delightfully, easily, in so many ways, except for the sex.

But that is not what you married Cole for.

A tongue hits your eye, slug-wet and heavy. Your husband strips away the recalcitrant sheet wound about your legs and nudges, insistently, his knee between your thighs. He must make love on his terms, which isn’t often. You usually make love in the mornings to take advantage of his hardness upon waking. Cole’s penis often doesn’t feel hard enough, as if it’s thinking of something else. He doesn’t come very often. Both of you usually give up before he has and it’s always with relief on your part. You wonder if Cole has a condition that causes him to take so long to come, or if he’s undersexed, or just tired. Like you have been, a lot.

As Cole is on top of you on this wide hotel bed you’re looking at the numbers of the clock radio by the bed flicking over their minutes and you’re thinking of Marilyn Monroe who said I don’t think I do it properly—you read it in a newspaper once with astonishment and relief: so, someone else, and what a someone else. You’re not sure if Cole does it properly, you don’t know what properly is. Theo would, for she is a sex therapist with a discreet Knightsbridge office and a Sunday magazine column. You suspect she finds you both innocent and ridiculous and sweet. Cole and you have never done any of that making love twice in a row or knocking over lamps or pulling each other’s hair. When you do make love you could describe each other as tidy.

The numbers on the clock radio are taking too long to flip over as you lie on the bed, with Cole on top of you. Something has slid away, deep in you. You don’t make love often; you’ve read articles in women’s magazines about how frequently most couples do and it always seems such a lot. But no one’s completely honest about sex.

Thirteen minutes past midnight. Cole has come. This is rare. He wipes the cum across your breasts and your cheeks and dabs it on your forehead, as if he’s blooding you. He’s pleased. You’re pleased. Perhaps it worked this time. Cole turns on the bedside lamp to assess the soakage on the sheets and any items of clothing; he always does this, he wants it cleaned up as quickly as possible, he hates mess.

You push his face toward you. He’s surprised at the boldness, he wants his face back but you hold him firm for you’re remembering walking down the aisle and looking ahead to him and your heart swelling with love like an old dried sponge that’s been dropped into a bath. When your husband enfolds you in his arms it’s a haven, a harbour, to rest from all the toss of the world. It’s what you’ve always wanted, you have to admit, the place of refuge, the cliché.

Lesson 9

the prevention of waste a duty

Before you found Cole you hadn’t slept with a man for four years. It’s hard, you’d say to Theo, it’s really hard. There were the endless birthday nights and New Year’s Eves of just you in your bed and no one else. There was the welling up at weddings, the glittery eye-prick, when all the couples would get up to dance. Sometimes it felt like your heart was crazed with cracks like your grandmother’s old saucers. Sometimes the sight of a Saturday afternoon couple laughing in a park would splinter it completely. Young couples who’d been together for many years were intriguing, hateful, remote. What was their secret? You’d reached the stage where you couldn’t imagine ever being in a loving partnership.

Theo had warned you that any person who lives by themselves for more than three years becomes strange and selfish and has to be hauled back into the world. She said she had to intervene. You told her no, you were beyond help, you’d convinced yourself of this. All your life people had been leaving: you were a child of divorced parents and you never grew up with the expectation that someone would look after you, and stay.

But then Cole McCain.

An old acquaintance from university, a friend, just that. One summer you were house-sitting in Edinburgh during the festival and he asked if he could come to stay; there were some shows he wanted to catch. You remember marching him to his room, a little girl’s, with its narrow bed and pink patchwork quilt. You remember his dubious look.

I think you better sleep in the big bed with me, you said.

It was meant to be two friends bunking down for the sake of convenience. You both had your pajamas on, you made sure of that. But then his sudden fingers on your skin were like a trickle of water on a sweltering summer’s day. A strangeness shot through you, you turned to him, kissed. Cole stripped off his pajamas, quick, and then yours were off too and something took over you, you were gone. Within a week you were both rolling up in the sheets and falling off the bed in a giggly cocoon. Within two years you were married.

I’ve known for years, you wally, said Theo in gleeful hindsight, it was always so obvious.

I never saw it.

It had taken you a long time to wake up to some sense. You used to sleep with men you were uncomfortable with in an attempt to make yourself comfortable with them; you married the one you forget yourself with.

But there was a moment of invisibility when you tried on the wedding dress, as if you were disappearing into that swathe of ivory and tulle, being wiped away. It was only fleeting and it was worth it, of course, not to have the prickle behind the eyes of those laughing Saturday afternoon couples again, the heart-crack.

Lesson 10

garments worn next to the skin are those which require frequent washing

Men you have slept with. What you remember the most:

The one who loved women.

The one who never took off his socks.

The one whose hands were so big they seemed to be in three places at once.

The one whose touch hummed, who seemed to know exactly what he was doing and stood out because of that. He seemed only to derive pleasure from the experience if you were, whereas none of the others seemed too fussed. He asked what your fantasies were but you didn’t have the courage to speak out. Back then, you’d never have the courage for that.

The one who sent you a polaroid of his very big cock.* But size means little to you, you don’t know why they go on about it. You much prefer a comfortable fit than a penis that’s too big; you don’t want to feel you’re being split apart.

The one who’d say take me as he came and groaned like he was doing a big shit.

The one who tickled you behind your knees and licked you on the face, who forced you to swallow his cum and rubbed it through your hair; who was aroused by all the things you didn’t like.

The one who said yes, when you asked him to marry you, half joking, half not, on a February the twenty-ninth. You’re embarrassed you had to ask Cole McCain. You wish he’d never mention it, but he does, in a teasing way, a lot.


*You’re more than happy to write the word cock; saying it aloud, however, is another matter. It even feels a little odd to say vagina but you’re not sure what else to use. You hate pussy, you don’t know any woman who says it, and as for cunt, you always think it’s used by men who don’t like women very much. You want some words that women have colonized for themselves; maybe they exist but you haven’t heard them yet. You can’t say down there for the rest of your life.

Lesson 11

a sacred and delicate reticence should always enwrap the pure and modest woman

Early morning.

A bird flaps into the room and you wake, panicked at the flittering above your head and run to the bathroom and slam the door, begging Cole to do something, quick. The bird’s swiftly gone. It hasn’t crashed wildly into mirrors or windows. You couldn’t bear that—you witnessed it once as a child, the droppings out of fright, the too-bright blood, the crazed thump, the shrill eye.

But now there’s just quiet hovering in the room. You step into it from the bathroom and kiss Cole on the tip of his nose. He envelops you in his arms with a great calm of ownership and laughs: he likes you vulnerable. And to teach you, to introduce you to new things. You didn’t look closely at a penis until you were married, didn’t know what a circumcised one looked like. You wonder, now, how you could’ve had the partners you’ve had and never really looked. You always wanted the lights off quick because you never liked your body enough, and dived under the sheets, and felt it was rude to study a man’s anatomy too intently: you favored eye contact and touch. Cole forced you to look, right at the start, he taught you to get close. He likes to direct your life, to guide it.

You let him think he is.

Lesson 12

it is our greatest happiness to be unselfish

Cole fell asleep inside you once. He laughs at the memory, finds it erotic and silly and comforting. The morning after, to soothe your indignation, he’d said that falling asleep inside a woman was a sign of true love.

What? Shaking your head as if rattling out a fly.

It means that the man’s truly comfortable with the woman, so comfortable that he can fall asleep in the process of making love to her. I could never do that to anyone else. Think yourself honored, Lovely.

Hmm, you’d replied.

You love Cole in a way you haven’t loved before. Calmly. It glows like a candle rather than glitters. You love him even when he falls asleep in the process of making love to you. You’d never loved calmly before, in your twenties. That was the time of greedy love, full of exhilaration and terror, and when you said I love you you always felt stripped; there was no sense, ever, of love as a rescue. Sometimes, now, you wonder what happened to the intensity of your youth, when everything seemed so vivid and desperate and bright. Sometimes you imagine a varnisher’s hand whipping over the quietness of your life now and flooding it with brightness, combusting it, in a way, with light.

But Cole. When he enfolds you in his arm you feel his love running as quiet and strong and deep as an underground river right through you. He stills your agitation in the way a visit to Choral Evensong does, or a long swim after work. The bond between you seems so clear-headed: the marriage is not perfect, by any means, but you’re old enough now to know you cannot demand perfection from the gift of love. It’s a lot more than most people have. Like Theo.

Your dear, restless, vivid-hearted friend. Sometimes you feel a sharp envy at the sensuality of her